On the remote island of Isola, seven people have been selected to compete in a 48-hour test for a top-secret intelligence position. One of them is Anna Francis, a workaholic with a nine-year-old daughter she rarely sees, and a secret that haunts her. Her assignment is to stage her own death and then observe, from her hiding place inside the walls of the house, how the other candidates react to the news that a murderer is among them. Who will take control? Who will crack under pressure?
But as soon as Anna steps on to the island she realises something isn’t quite right. And then a storm rolls in, the power goes out, and the real game begins…
The Dying Game was advertised as a combination of Orwell’s 1984 and Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None with a dash of The Hunger Games thrown into the mix. This makes the book sound awfully tempting especially since I could never resist a new take on the Christie novel. After all, is there a greater concept than a few people trapped in a remote location getting picked off one-by-one by a ruthless killer? So, I had certain expectations towards the book, unfortunately they were not fulfilled.
First we are treated to a very short introduction of a only a few passages which tells us, that in 1995 Sweden became a Protectorate under the Union of Friendship (whatever this means). Apparently it is not a democratic country anymore. Some sort of dictatorship was installed and … well, I wish I could tell you more, but the author is not exactly forthcoming with explanations. So, I kept wondering throughout: What exactly happened and why, but we never find out. This whole dystopian angle remains very vague, it is not more than an annoying gimmick, and I believe the story could have easily worked without it.
Our story takes place in the year 2037. Anna Francis is leading a miserable life. She is in a very bad physical and mental state since she took part in a humanitarian mission in Kyzl Kum (obviously a fictional name for some Middle Eastern (?) country). Now, don’t ask me what kind of totalitarian regime organises humanitarian missions, it is just one of several aspects of the novel, which do not make a lot of sense. It is also hinted at, that Anna made some mistakes on this mission. Now she has a chance to redeem herself when she is selected for a special assignment.
This is how another character describes Anna:
“When I caught sight of Anna on the frozen brown lawn in front of the house, it gave me a shock. She appeared to have aged ten years since we last saw each other. From thin to emaciated, from pale to transparent. Her skin seemed to strain across her skull, and what used to be sharp features were now more like gouges. It was clear that the project in Kyzl Kum had been no vacation. On the contrary, it seemed to have cost her a great deal. And it wasn’t just that she looked exhausted, it was that she looked destroyed, in a way that was rather ghastly.”
So, we are a long way here from the usual pretty young heroines in dystopian fiction. Anna is basically a wreck, but despite the author’s best efforts she is not a particularly interesting one. She is estranged from her only child, a daughter who appears in flashbacks, we also get glimpses at Anna’s time in Kyzl Kum and the horrors she had to witness there. Despite all this there is just not enough going on with her character, she is simply a decent person trying to survive in a not so decent world
Later we are introduced to Henry, our other main character. Henry and Anna were almost romantically involved once. The attraction was mostly on Anna’s side though, while Henry was reluctant to enter a relationship. Now he is taking part in Anna’s mission, being one of the contestants on the island.
The middle part of The Dying Game is the one resembling And Then There Were None the most as the people partaking in the test arrive on the island and have to deal with the staged murder of Anna, yet this “Ten Little Indians” scenario is over very quickly and the finale moves almost into corporate espionage/spy thriller territory becoming a quite different book again.
It is difficult to say, who will enjoy The Dying Game the most, those hoping for a well-thought-out dystopia will most likely be as disappointed as readers expecting a smart new take on the Agatha Christie classic, still it is far from a terrible book, it just seems a bit pointless and superficial.